(Note: this first appeared in Time's Battleland, February 20, 2012)
The first three chapters in Sun Tzu’s timeless classic “The Art of War” describe how to make net assessments by comparing your strengths and weaknesses and those of your adversary and how to formulate strategy. Near the end of Chapter 3, he sums up his advice, saying, “Know your enemy and know yourself; in a hundred battles, you will never be defeated. When you are ignorant of the enemy but know yourself, your chances of winning or losing are equal. If ignorant both of your enemy and of yourself, you are sure to be defeated in every battle.”
The fundamental problem in the American military and foreign policy elite lies in an incestuously amplifying, self referencing orientation that makes it ignorant of both of Master Sun’s categories of knowledge. (I explain how incestuous amplification hijacks a decision cycle in this essay.) Briefly, the American policy elite’s self-referencing Orientation causes it to Observe what it wants to see.
This kind of one-way shaping isolates the decision-making mind from what is really going on in its external environment. As the American strategist Colonel John Boyd showed, Decisions flowing out of an Orientation that overwhelms Observations become disconnected from reality, and therefore, the Actions consequent to those decisions inevitably become irrelevant at best, and more often counterproductive, in that they amplify themselves to drive the collective decision cycle or Observation – Orientation – Decision – Action (OODA) loops ever further away from reality.
Left uncorrected, the result is an inexorable descent into disorder, and eventually a magnification into chaos leading to overload and collapse. (Interested readers will find a short summary of Boyd’s theory in the last part of this essay. A more extended description of the man and his work can be found in Robert Coram’s excellent biography, Boyd: The Fighter Pilot Who Changed the Art of War, now in its 7th printing. Boyd’s entire Discourse on Winning and Losing — his art of conflict — can be downloaded here.)
Self-referencing behavior is clearly evident with regard to ourselves, for example, in the entirely predicable — and predicted — chaos of the Pentagon’s uncontrollable long-range budget plan (which is grounded on a combination of inwardly focused power games as well as a deliberately corrupted accounting system — explained here, here, and here). Put bluntly — we know that we do not know ourselves — indeed the evidence I compiled during my 25+ years of research in the the Pentagon’s pathological decision making practices, while employed in the Office of the Secretary of Defense, suggests we do not want to know ourselves and will go to great lengths to avoid doing so (unclassified reports can be found here).
Not only does our elite not want to understand itself, it also does not know its adversaries. That was clearly the case in Vietnam and Iraq and currently in Afghanistan. Consider this farcical, were it not so serious, report in Sunday’s New York Times; it describes how the Taliban and impostors are scamming us in Afghanistan. Bear in mind, this report is just the tip of a huge iceberg of evidence describing the self-inflicted — dare I say incestuously delusional — ignorance: see, for example, like that described by Lieut. Colonel Daniel Davis in his 87 page report, “Dereliction of Duty II” (a summary by ace investigative journalist Gareth Porter can be found here).
But Sun Tzu is a voice from 500 B.C., and his musing may be irrelevant in the 21st Century. Perhaps that’s because, as Otto von Bismarck is alleged to have predicted, just before he died in 1898, there is a “special providence for drunkards, fools, and the United States of America.” As Francis Urquhart would say: “You might very well think that. I couldn’t possibly comment.”